All images by Stephen J. Williams.
All images by Stephen J. Williams.
Michelle Ramin won the San Francisco Bay Guardian 2014 Goldie Award for Excellence in Visual Art. She has exhibited her paintings in San Francisco, New York, Portland, Nashville, New Orleans, and in the UK. She was born in North Central Pennsylvania and currently lives and works in San Francisco. Ramin studied at Penn State University and received an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. Her work has appeared in New American Paintings, SF Chronicle, SF Weekly, Beautiful Decay, 580 Split, and is included in the Jimenez-Colon permanent collection in Puerto Rico. A solo exhibition of Ramin’s work opened at the Duplex Gallery in Oregon on 2 June 2016.
Williams: I was in the Louvre probably decades before you, and before the space in which the ‘Mona Lisa’ is hung was renovated. Nothing important about the experience appears to have changed. There were no ‘smartphones’ then, but there were lots of cameras. A large group of people, which seemed to be moving as a pack from room to room, ignored every other picture in the Denon wing. Your painting, ‘Mona Lisa IRL’, does a number of interesting things with this scene, which must now be familiar to most tourists who visit Paris. To my mind, the most important thing you do is confidently announce that paintings are as good or better than photographs at contemplating our now surreal relationship with images and art. The virtual ‘Mona Lisa’, one we might see on the Louvre website, is somehow more real than the ‘Mona Lisa’ in real life.
Ramin: Yeah, I think that’s interesting—the idea of the ‘Virtual Mona Lisa’ vs. Mona Lisa ‘IRL’. She’s more famous as a replicated digital or printed image than as an actual painting. When I got into the room, I kinda stopped caring about the painting itself. In that moment, I was able to check it off my tourist list of things to see. I didn’t get very close and could honestly barely make out that it was the ‘Mona Lisa’, except for the huge crowd around her. It mattered to me more to be experiencing the way in which people experience her rather than getting close to the actual painting and observing the brush strokes, colors used, composition, size, etc. I studied all of that in school but all that knowledge didn’t mean a thing when I got into that room. It was then that I realised I wanted my next body of work to be about crowds of people observing famous pieces of art. It’s interesting to me that some people find the need to check certain famous pieces off of a list—as in the Louvre brochure—while others spend minutes or sometimes hours studying the same piece. It’s like this at concerts, too, and other cultural institutions and happenings. Something about hype and fame—the bragging rights involved—that really draws people, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Then again, who am I to judge how people should and should not experience something?
Williams: Digital photography has become the standard method of certifying experience in a way that seems more reliable and objective than memory… until the drive fails or your cloud is hacked. Your paintings of subjects inside the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay are also about the spectacle of art and the hype surrounding it. To experience this as a tourist or art lover is one thing, but artists experience the spectacle and hype of the art world in a different way, as I suspect you are finding now you have several exhibitions of your own coming up.
Ramin: Hype is a very real and intimidating phenomenon, especially now with the advent of social media. As young as I am (thirty-four), I still remember the days without computers, cell phones, internet, etc. Word of mouth and the printed word were the only way to get information out there. Now, there are so many ways—so many websites, blogs, apps, etc.—I can’t keep up, nor do I want to. The popular way to virtually socialise changes constantly. A week out from the opening of my solo exhibition ‘Jet Lag’, at Duplex Gallery in Portland, Oregon, and I find myself full of anxiety over whether or not I sent press releases to the right people. Who are the ‘right’ people? Even a few years ago, it was so much clearer. All I’ve been seeing this week is an ocean of faceless art blogs and Instagram accounts. I find myself feeling very much like I did in the congested museums of Paris—alone in a crowded room, and very overwhelmed. This is all part of the process, of course. The art making is the easy part for an artist. It’s everything else that is so difficult.
Williams: The recent gallery paintings are unusual in your body of work because they have not edited out the architecture and environment of the subjects. In much of your other work, for example ‘Ben and Travis Find a Tube’ [Watercolor on Paper, 22″ x 30″, 2015], the setting is missing and only the subject and action is left. Something that may have started out being a photograph or a memory, or both, ends up being a pictorial distillation. Can you tell me something about your editorial process, about how you decide what gets left in and what gets cut out, about how you decide what your real subject matter is?
Ramin: I’ve always been a very focused person. I have a tendency to focus so much on one thing that I miss all the details surrounding the thing. Most of my work over the past five years has been intentionally editing out the background or surroundings of the figures—mostly because I, myself, only really cared about the subjects and their actions. The rest seemed superfluous. I wanted the viewers to see what I was seeing, which was the interaction and relationships between the figures, and nothing else. My newest body of work is about something a little different—still about people, their interactions with each other, but also their interaction with the unique space that constitutes a museum. There’s so much weight to a museum—historically, of course, but also architecturally. It’s contextually important for me to include this unique environment in the paintings. I didn’t want to introduce backgrounds again until I knew for sure it provided something important and relevant to the works’ content.
Williams: Some of your other projects, from 2011 and 2012—the installations ‘Mask Booth’ and ‘Try it on’—appear to invite or challenge people to try on something that in Australia we call a ‘balaclava’. It makes everyone look like a criminal, or like they’re on a polar expedition. What is this about?
Ramin: When I was in graduate school, I took up the mask, or balaclava, as a multi-layered, politically-charged symbol representing various identities. I used this metaphor as a way to discuss hidden identities, subcontexts, in each of our personalities. By putting on the mask, one takes on a new and very different identity. The body of work relating to masks centered around private vs. public personas and the existence of this doubling in everyone. This theme can be extended to include social media personas and public branding as well. At the time, 2011–2012, the Occupy Movement in the Bay Area was ramping up, the punk band Pussy Riot was very active politically and the film ‘Spring Breakers’ had come out. When I began the mask series, these cultural icons weren’t present, but by the time I was in the midst of the series they were. A form of the collective unconscious, I suppose. It seemed like the balaclava was on everyone’s minds, so it felt like a very relevant representation of that moment, especially following the 2008 recession and being an election year here in the U.S.
Williams: Yes, and by the time this zeitgeist filters through to your watercolor and pencil drawings, something else has happened. The hidden, masked self is perfectly domesticated and comfortable on the sofa. ‘Three aliases’ [Colored Pencil on Paper, 22 x 30 inches, 2011] is both funny and disturbing.
Artists have to be concerned about what other people think. At one end of the spectrum it’s ‘Will they like my work?’, and at the other it’s ‘Will they understand what it means?’ Are you a worrier? Are you on the side of authenticity or on the side of sincerity?
Ramin: I am absolutely a worrier! —In all aspects of my life. At this point in my career I care very much about what people think and how the work will be received. I want it to be accessible to everyone but I also want it to function on a higher level, where artists, critics, historians, etc., can gather more information from the work. I don’t want to choose sides. I want it all, really. Doesn’t everyone?
Williams: Maybe. The path we take to get to where we are seems less important at the start than when you get to near the end. That’s the difference between being thirty-four and fifty-eight.
We’ve touched on how technology now mediates how we experience art. This means that art is made by people who have seen more art than ever before. What have you been looking at recently? What have you discovered?
Ramin: The last art I went to see was at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) and California College of the Arts (CCA) MFA thesis exhibitions. They are the annual displays of graduate students’ work. I love checking out the work of emerging artists coming out of graduate art programs. A lot of the work is missing steps but some is extraordinary. There’s such a refreshing feeling to young (in career, not necessarily age) artists’ work: the best of the showings can be invigorating and inspiring, like Laura Rokas and Robin Crofut-Brittingham. The worst is still really intriguing because it’s candid in its failure: no censorship, just letting it all hang out. I appreciate that on a lot of levels. That’s what graduate school is for… Experimentation and failure: something that should be encouraged more in post-graduate work and, honestly, in our daily lives.
Jill Greenberg slagged off the bloggers. They apparently have too much time on their hands, because why else would anyone, looking at the photos in her latest exhibition, End Times, at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, reach the conclusion that she was a monster who had abused the children who were her subjects?
Thomas Hawk thought she should be arrested and charged with child abuse. Jeremiah McNichols weighed in then from a visual arts perspective.
The curator, Paul Kopeikin, is complaining about the hate mail and Greenberg has made it all the way to BBC podcasts in what is, without any doubt, an advertising coup for her exhibition and her career as an artist. At last—she can now breathe a sigh of relief—she is famous, and her photographs are, if Kopeikin’s suggestions can be believed, walking out the door. And there won’t be any police enquiries into child abuse—not unless there are some facts we don’t yet know about, or perhaps the parents of the cry babies have some startling revelation about the unauthorised use of electrodes.
Greenberg pointed out in interviews broadcast by the BBC that babies cry all the time, at the drop of a hat, so to speak, and stop crying just as quickly. Babies cry, she told us, because lollypops have been taken away from them. In fact, that is how she got many of the babies in her photographs to blubber: she took their lollies away from them. When that didn’t work, and some other method was needed, the childrens’ parents were taken out of the room.
Before looking closely at these photographs—they claim to be art, after all, so we must look closely at them—there is one more thing I think it is important to note about this exhibition: Jill Greenberg has already told us what it means. I heard her talking about the meaning of the photographs before I had seen them. When she reminded me that children cry very easily, I felt sympathy for her position immediately. (She is being accused of child abuse, which is a serious thing to say about anyone.) A striking thing about the conversation, though, was the completely straightforward manner of telling us what the photographs mean.
Jill Greenberg wants to show us how upset these two and three year old children would be if they “realised the world they would inherit” (BBC Radio Newspod 27/7/2006). She feels upset, herself, about the environmental policies of George Bush, and is ‘depicting’ this distress through pictures of children that are upset. Greenberg has two children herself, a one year old and a three year old, so, naturally, she’s been thinking about these issues. The photographs were taken with the permission and co-operation of the children’s’ mothers; so there seems to be no question that, if Jill Greenberg was abusing these children, we are bound to hear about it from someone closer to the crime than the bloggers who want to put Greenberg away. Greenberg takes several swipes at the bloggers, saying of them that they obviously have too much time on their hands, that they hide behind a screen of anonymity, and have been careless with her reputation while putting nothing of their own at risk. (Or words to that effect.)
The question of the treatment of the subjects during the photographic session threatens to derail the stated artistic objective of the pictures, possibly because the stated artistic objective of the photographs is weak. It really is striking and ironic that in an age of very sophisticated understanding of art theory it should seem acceptable that a photographer-artist tells us what her photographs mean. Possibly it is just because we do not have direct access to the intentions of artists that they must now tell us what they mean. It is even stranger, really, that having heard what the photographer tells me the photographs mean, I don’t believe her—and, actually, I think, the meaning of the pictures is, at least as stated, more than a little bit silly. Greenberg cuts the legs from under the theorem she posits about her own pictures by immediately attempting to demystify the childrens’ apparent agonies. Children will cry about anything, and can cry almost all the time, so we shouldn’t be worried. Greenberg took their lollies away from them and, if that didn’t work, she took their mothers away from them.
In truth, we are being asked to suspend our disbelief for a little while, and consider what a child might do, how a child might behave, if it had an understanding of what its parent’s generation was doing to the world in which it had to live. Very specifically, the meaning of the photographs is a kind of joke: this is how we should react, Jill Greenberg seems to be saying to us, when we hear that the American military apparatus is torturing prisoners in Guantanamo Bay; and the appearance of the crying child in the photograph entitled ‘Torture’ is merely the weak, almost irrelevant, punch-line of the joke. We look at the poor girl’s face, the corner of her mouth falling off her face, and read the title—’Torture’ or whatever is underneath the next photograph on the wall—the same lame joke repeating itself over and over again.
It’s very strange, then, to be confronted with both a claim about the photographs in End Times and an obvious truth about the same photographs that are completely incompatible.
The children in End Times are presented to us in much the same way as the apes of Greenberg’s previous exhibition. Each child seems to be positioned carefully in front of a bluish, neutral screen, lit so that it is whiter at the centre. The children are lit like commercial objects, their skin and hair displaying a tremendously effective sheen, as though they’ve really been polished up for presentation to the camera. Some of the children have great rivers of tears flowing down their cheeks. Some look a bit dry. They are all, of course, without their lollies or mothers, a bit emotional; and Greenberg appears to have done a good job capturing the great variety of expressions that have enabled her to label the photographs so creatively. I can’t say that I laughed out loud when I read the titles, so perhaps the titles are meant to be amusing in the ‘Oh, that is deep, yes, how could anyone disagree with those sentiments’ sense, rather than the ‘O, God, please make it stop—I’m laughing so much it hurts’ sense. Greenberg has managed to keep the children positioned for the camera with great effectiveness, just as she did with the apes. Perhaps there is a technique she hasn’t let on? Were they (the kiddies or the apes) restrained in some way?
Most importantly, the sympathetic impulse one feels when seeing these pictures is qualitatively no different to the impulse one feels when seeing any child cry. There is nothing in the photographs about the state of the planet’s ecology, about the betrayal of public trust. Nothing whatsoever. There is just the title, hanging limply off the bottom of the image.
The children in End Times do not look like they are contemplating a terrifying legacy or some ineluctable, depressing future. Actually, they look like young children who have been bitch-slapped by a photographer. They look like exactly what they are.
Just in case you haven’t caught my drift, here is a truly disturbing photograph, taken in 1990 by James Nachtwey, of a child confined to a filthy cot in a Romanian orphanage for ‘incurables’:
What art there is in this picture has been put to the service of underlining the horror of its subject’s predicament.
Looking at a picture of this kind, we do not sense that there is any trail of evidence leading from the child’s cry to the photographer. The photographer is irrelevant. Instead, we immediately find ourselves standing in the place of the camera, while very basic impulses rush to the front of our minds.
The following post is, statistically, the most popular (well, most clicked) post on this site for Indonesian web-surfers. Google link stats suggest this is because many web-surfers located in Indonesia come here hoping to see ‘Anjasmara nude’ (‘Anjasmara bugil’). Could this be true? If you are visiting this site from Indonesia, leave a comment to register your disappointment, or any other feelings you have.
Here is the photograph and installation that is causing all the fuss in Indonesia. It is neither very offensive nor very interesting. As usual, scale makes up for what imagination fails to provide: apparently it is pretty big—“massive,” the journalists say. The photographs show the wall-height photograph is wrapped around an actual pink swing—like a backyard or playground swing, painted pink—large enough for a child (or small adult) to sit in. And the little, white dots that coyly camouflage the models’ naughty bits are in the original and have not been added to protect you here.
However, in truth, as everyone in Indonesia seems to realise, the furore about Pink Swing Park is not really about art at all but about the larger national debate in which power-hungry religious ideologues have decided they will mobilise the passions of their followers by attempting to outlaw whatever they say will inflame human desires.
Tight clothing, erotica and, who knows, maybe even chocolate (!?) are on their way out in Indonesia.
Women, in any case, should stay at home. That is the simplest way to prevent them inflaming male passions.
Now, to be perfectly honest, I think this is the correct strategy. I believe we should be encouraging the whole Muslim world to introduce radically repressive laws against all forms of indecency, sexuality and anything that inflames desire. While we are at it, let us encourage them, also, to reject everything tainted by the unfriendly, unclean hand of the West. And I think we should encourage them to keep their women at home, sheltered, uneducated and forbidden to travel without chaperon. The Muslim world should be encouraged to destroy all its great works of art, as the Taliban did in Afghanistan, and to destroy as much history and as many books as they find objectionable. Only in their own countries, of course, and as an example to the rest of us.
Navel gazing ruled out as Indonesians button up
Photo: Agus Suwage and Davy Linggar
By Mark Forbes Herald Correspondent in Jakarta
February 25, 2006
ROCKING in a pink swing fashioned from the cab of a pedal-driven rickshaw, Agus Suwage felt at peace. He had just installed his Pinkswing Park exhibit at Jakarta’s international biennale and was surrounded by massive panels with multiple pictures of a near-naked man and woman frolicking in a utopian park—a world away from thoughts of religious furore, public condemnation and possible imprisonment.
The softly spoken, bespectacled 47-year-old seems an unlikely martyr, his only concession to the battle now enveloping his life is a peaked camouflage hat with a skull and crossbones button pinned to its front.
Within days of November’s exhibition launch, Islamic fundamentalists had shoved Suwage to the forefront of their struggle to redefine Indonesia by descending on the biennale, forcing its closure and demanding prosecutions. At first police claimed his work blasphemed the story of Adam and Eve, then last week they told Suwage he faced five years in jail for producing pornography.
The same groups staging violent demonstrations against the West over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad are targeting pornography in their battle to transform Indonesia into a strict Islamic nation. And they are winning: parliament is set to introduce a sweeping anti-pornography law.
Expected to be passed by June, the law imposes a rigid social template; couples who kiss in public will face up to five years’ jail, as would anyone flaunting a “sensual body part”—including their navel—and tight clothing will be outlawed.
Most women’s groups are horrified, entertainment industries believe it could destroy them and Bali’s embattled tourism authorities are alarmed at the prospect of sunbathing tourists being arrested.
Mainstream Islamic organisations are warning of moral decay and backing the bill, while politicians, wary of alienating Indonesia’s Muslim majority, are condoning the growing anti-porn movement.
Plans to introduce Playboy’s soft porn to the Indonesian market next month have become another focus of rowdy demonstrations, with protesters portraying the magazine as a symbol of the decadent West’s attack on Islam. Playboy’s publishers are proposing a bizarre compromise, no naked women will be featured—Indonesians, at least, will be able to say they only buy it for the articles.
In Jakarta, police have seized hundreds of thousands of “erotic” magazines—including FHM and Rolling Stone—and DVDs, after an edict from police chief Sutanto to “eradicate pornography”.
The Islamic Defenders Front spearheads the anti-porn protests. It took two days to track down its leader, Habib Riziek, this week—he was at police headquarters, seeking information about “his men” arrested for allegedly attacking the US embassy in Jakarta last week. Porn, including artworks such as Suwage’s, contributes to moral delinquency, Riziek claims. “We don’t care about the technicality of the picture,” he says. “What we care is that the picture is publicly exhibited and it is pornography and it would damage morals.” Suwage believes his work captured attention because one of the models, Anjasmara, is a popular soapie star. The two models, photographer Davy Linggar and the curator of the biennale, Jim Supangkat, are also facing criminal charges.
Suwage is increasingly bitter about Supangkat’s reaction to the protest. After hundreds of demonstrators arrived at the exhibition, a panicked Supangkat ordered the offending panels to be covered with white cloth. Other artists draped their own works in solidarity and Supangkat closed the biennale, permanently.
Suwage believes his prosecution is linked to pressure to pass the anti-porn law and the desire of fundamentalists to impose Islamic rule on Indonesia. Suwage, who is afraid of prison, says he is determined to fight.
Based at a small cafe gallery in Jakarta’s backpacker precinct, Suwage and a motley collective or artists are mobilising against the new law. “From this case, we make a manifesto for art against the pornography bill. It’s very dangerous for freedom of expression but it also threatens other aspects of society.” Riziek remains emphatic the bill is essential to “guard the nation’s morality” against pornography, which extends past explicit photographs to “anything that could arouse sexual desire”.
Balkan Kaplale heads the parliamentary committee finalising the pornography bill and is confident it will become law this year.
It would halt the publication of magazines such as Playboy, he says. “ Playboy would place a time bomb in Indonesia, what guarantee is there it would not arrive in the hands of our children? Playboy is American magazine. Please, don’t play this game with Indonesians, we have dignity.”
Indonesians also have sensuality, says leading feminist and university professor Gadis Arriva. “Women here have always dressed sexily and in tight clothes, this law is something very alien to us, we have barebreasted women in Bali and Papua, this is part of our culture.”
In Bali, the head of the government’s tourism authority, Gede Nurjaya, agrees. Traditional Balinese art and dance could become illegal, he believes. He is concerned prohibitions against kissing and revealing bodies could be imposed against foreigners, destroying Bali’s faltering tourism industry.
Arriva says most women’s groups oppose the bill. “Most of it restricts women, what they wear, how they act. It even creates a board that would go around monitoring women’s behaviour.”
The new law would also gag a flourishing emergence of young female writers, who write openly about sexuality. “It states it is illegal to express any sexual desire, even imagine sex—how do you prove that?” asks Arriva.
She sees the anti-porn movement as part of an agenda to reshape Indonesia, with pornography a symbol of Western culture to the many Muslims who believe globalisation aims to destroy their culture. Adrian Vickers, Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Wollongong, agrees the debate is “part of whipping up a moral panic about Western decadence eroding Indonesian culture and morality”, with the potential to push Indonesia towards an Islamic state. “Given anxieties about terrorism, a more Islamic Indonesia could see Australia very much as the enemy,” he warns.
A closed society looms, says Suwage. “There would be no freedom, it will have a big impact for us, for artists, but it will go everywhere. I don’t believe a picture can change a person’s morality. Morality starts from the individual, from inside, not from dogma.”
with Karuni Rompies
Elsewhere, on a similar theme
and on the changing face of Indonesia
The Rent-a-Negro website link flew around the internet a while back, many people linking to it as a humorous site. Initially few people recognised that the site was, as well as being very funny and beautifully written, a ‘serious’ art project.
More recently, and more controversially, Tanja Ostojic’s poster of a reclining nude in blue briefs with the symbol of the European Union planted over the hidden entrance to an unknown woman’s vagina, caused outrage in Austria.
Other posters commissioned by 25PEACES were by Carlos Aires, a Spanish photographer, depicting international leaders (including the Queen of England) having sex.
What are we to make of these web sites and images? The Austrians, currently thinking hard about their relationship with Turkish immigrants and the possibility that Turkey might one day join the EU, were naturally sensitive to Ostojic’s image.
The 25PEACES commission of over a hundred works contained images that attempted to provoke debate about the relationships of global political leaders.
From this distance—and it is very difficult to judge reactions and emotions through the news and over the internet—what looks like public outrage may only be a storm in a teacup. In reports about the public outrage over art works, generated for the sake of news or not, there is almost never any real discussion of the ‘art’ in the art. Is it no longer relevant—because only ‘facts’ are reported in the news—what an artist’s other works are like?
Reporting (in Europe) about the controversy over the Ostojic image blends it seamlessly with reporting about the other posters and of people’s reactions. However, there are two facts it is useful to know…
1] The Ostojic image exactly reproduces Courbet’s famous painting in the Museé d’Orsay, ‘The Origin of the World’. The title of the reference painting, alone, should be enough to make us stop to think what might be going on here.
2] Ostojic’s art often focuses on issues where politics and women’s bodies collide. Look at this remarkable image of a woman in a camouflage burka …
To me, this is a much more powerful work than the 25PEACES commission, but I don’t expect to be bowled over by everything an artist does. Artistic works of this kind set out to dislodge our thinking from fixed positions.
Beginning with exactly the same methodology and materials, Carlos Aires’s contribution—global leaders fucking—seems thoroughly tame. Why? Possibly because the idea underpinning the images is weaker. Possibly because we sense, as viewers of the works, that Aires has strained too hard and with not enough effect after the outrage the work sought?
These are more typical Aires photographs. Confronting, in a dull way, but competently photographed and printed (on metallic paper: a trick from the advertising industry).
Part of the problem with Aires’s contribution to the 25PEACES commission may simply be that he has miscalculated the objects of his scorn. Why is Queen Elizabeth in the group at all?
The outrage over such art works is a good thing. Artists, old and new, sink or swim in the tidal flow of public perceptions. Commentators on art works behave as though this isn’t the case, and has not always been the case. The pathologies of our outrage, the process by which we become aware of what has moved us or left us cold, need to expand our peripheral vision beyond the images themselves while not losing focus on what it really is we are looking at.
It’s 1962. Signor Giacomelli goes out with his camera,
His ‘avocation’. (Probably he had it with him by chance:
Who would want to take pictures at this hour?)
The sun half up, he uses flash, for contrast
And to brighten faces, but it’s no good.
Two noses and four down cast eyes only faintly appear.
What the matter? Are the women crying?
Has someone died? No. I think they’re always this unhappy.
After early mass somewhere in the Abruzzi district,
Traditional black coats eclipse the frame
Then wander dimly off.
You’ve probably not seen this photograph though
It’s very famous. The title is either something innocent
Or implies a sacrifice. And it’s strange
That when you stare into the puzzle for a long time
The little boy in long trousers
With his hands in his pockets, hair neatly combed,
And a face that shines specially,
Head cocked slightly right on top a crisp, white shirt,
Descends so nonchalantly on his own
Light pathway into this misery.
What is he
What will he do?
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